Recently, I was guiding my students to write a quite complex master's thesis on art history about Leonardo da Vinci’s Notes on Paintings, which is actually a record of his thoughts. Judging by the notes, he is a good writer and painter who was keen on expressing his understanding of the world through words and images. His research is very extensive. As a homosexual, he studied the womb and the process of pregnancy with handmade pictures. He is also the earliest proponent of tanks, spacecrafts, and submarines, all recorded in the notes.
Based on this, I think sketches, or manuscripts, are not simply sketches and manuscripts. I think we should concern ourselves about the following point: the manuscript itself is a history of art, or rather, a secret art history. We have an established art history about outstanding artists from one generation to another as well as the glory, the mostly favorable review and positioning of their works. This is basically what we know about art history. As for whether the positioning is accurate, whether the evaluation is appropriate, and whether the works deserve such recognition, these are controversial issues that have aroused endless debate. However, hidden behind such a “normal” art history, is there another one? The manuscript presents such a possibility. It not only reveals the artist's creative thinking and vividly documents the development of their thinking, but also may lead historians to make conclusions which run counter to the established stories because of their grassroots nature. It is for this reason that I’m saying that sketches and manuscripts constitute another hidden history. In the 1990s, I got acquainted with Zhu Xueqin, a scholar from Shanghai. He told me once that Gombrich gave him an important idea that one should pay attention to the manuscript. He was then prompted to reexamine the thinkers who failed to make fame. He called them the “draft-like thinkers”, who raised good questions, but for a variety of reasons these questions were not solved, nor thoroughly studied, and they vanished because they were not developed into a system. Based on this view, Zhu Xueqin wrote an article discussing the disappeared Chinese draft-like thinkers whose notable ideas sparkled but soon died out in the time of political extremism. Some of them managed to become great thinkers of the time as the situation improved. One of the most typical examples is Mr. Yang Xiguang, the well-known economist who made his mark in the field of classical economics. He was first imprisoned because of his revolutionary ideas, then re-entered university after the reform and opening-up policy and became a professor. In contrast, Yang Xiguang is indeed lucky, because there are many such thinkers who were like a flash in the pan and did not even leave their names.
This indicates that the meaning of the manuscript must go beyond our imagination and allow historians to re-examine the history of art with such material and bring about potentially disruptive conclusions. The manuscript reveals a secret art history. I think this view is very important.
In the afterword of my book Commend on Pictures, I pointed out that art criticism is a primary history. By "primary" I mean the opinion recorded for the first time. The “primary history" is actually a journalistic concept. In journalism, the news is considered as a primary history, because all events are first recorded by the media, and then they are read and interpreted by the posterity. For example, Mr. Sang Bing, a famous professor from the Department of History at Sun Yat-sen University, studied the phenomenon of academic associations in the late Qing and early Republic period based on the various newspapers of that time, without which there’s no way for us to restore the history of those years.
Back to the history of art, do we also have a primary history? Needless to say, there is one indeed, because the art criticism we are engaged in is a primary history of art, leaving behind the initial impression of the emerged art. The art historians seem to have always had a prejudice against the study of contemporary art, which is deemed less academic than the study of ancient art. But I think this view is biased. Think about it. In five hundred years, this conference on the value of manuscripts we are having today will become the basic subject of study for several doctoral dissertations. In fact, the past reviews that we study were nothing more than contemporary art criticism from the ancient times? Why the study of the past is considered academic, while studying the contemporary is not?
The point is that we may be able to discover something different from the description of orthodox art history and deepen our understanding of the artist's uniqueness through art history. For example, I interviewed Li Xiaobin in Beijing, a photographer who was the core figure in the“April Photography Society” and an important vanguard of documentary photography during the reform and opening-up policy. I looked at his photographs taken in the ’70s and ‘80s, and was surprised to find that he was the key figure in connecting the underground cultures of Beijing in the 1970s. He left a lot of visual materials, wandered around the "Today" literature circle, “No Name” and “The Stars” art circles with a camera in the hand. Without these photos, how could we be acquainted with the underground cultural movement in that particular era? So Li Xiaobin's photos provide an opportunity for us to see China's cultural history in the 1970s in a different light. In photography, randomly-taken photos are similar to the manuscript, revealing a secret art history, or at least a primary art history.
Of course, we have to pay attention to another serious problem, that is, the manuscript should not be regarded as an art form, otherwise the manuscript would become consciously made. In literature, if the diary turns into a form of writing, it’s no longer a diary in nature, such as Lu Xun's Mad Men's Diary, which is a novel in disguise. Another writer Yu Dafu also applied the form of diary in his penmanship. In these cases, the writing is no longer diary, but fictions in the form of diary. Likewise, if a manuscript is consciously created, the meaning and value of the manuscript disappears. We can only regard this fabricated manuscript as an art language and a style. We should pay special attention to this point. While we are studying manuscripts from the past, some young artists have begun to "create" manuscripts. In fact, the older generation of artists might have done the same thing to rewrite history, and we need to be aware of this problem. This also raises a question for us as how to define the "manuscript". Without a clear definition, the manuscript research is impossible to go forward.